In his State of the Union message, President Bush made it clear that his current strategy in Iraq is not up for negotiation. “Our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options,” he said. “In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success.”
So the “surge” of 21,500 additional U.S. troops, most of them slated to work and live in some of Baghdad’s most troubled neighborhoods, is virtually certain to happen. Could it work?
One of the more promising reasons to believe so is Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, slated to be the new top commander in Iraq. In hearings Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he acknowledged his new job will be extremely difficult, but he said he believes the new plan has a chance.
He based his assessment not so much on the additional U.S. troops as on the new tactics. Instead of simply clearing neighborhoods of insurgents and returning to large fortified bases, U.S. troops will establish outposts within contested neighborhoods and work closely and daily with Iraqi troops.
Petraeus is widely viewed as one of the most intelligent and capable officers in the military. He commanded a largely successful operation in Kurdish territory early in the war and oversaw the development of a new counterinsurgency strategy for the U.S. military. He seems to be the right man at the right time for this extremely difficult job.
In addition, intelligence analysts working on a draft of a new National Intelligence Estimate told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that it will be “very difficult” but “not impossible” for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to provide better governance in Iraq.
“Gains in stability could open a window for gains in reconciliation among and between sectarian groups and could open the possibilities for a moderate coalition that could permit better government,” said John Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis. U.S. analysts believe al-Maliki has a new resolve not to fail.
Whether resolve and determination are enough may depend not only on whether U.S. and Iraqi troops can establish a modicum of security in violent Baghdad neighborhoods, but on the response of the Iraqi people. Mohammed Fadhil, who with his brother operates the Baghdad-based blog Iraq The Model believes most Iraqis are sick and tired of the violence. If they believe a less-violent outcome is possible, they could discourage the minority of militants in a thousand large and small ways — by not harboring them, by informing authorities of insurgent strongholds or safe houses, even by openly resisting.
The fact that success rests so heavily on changing attitudes and actions among the Iraqi people, which the United States can influence but not control, underlines the difficulties inherent in the new strategy. Increasing the number of U.S. troops and having them live in neighborhoods they have “cleared” will make U.S. troops more vulnerable. And it is impossible to predict how the anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who with his Mahdi Army is straddling a line between political participation and open insurgency, will respond to changing conditions.
It is a long shot, but there is just a chance that the U.S. strategy will set the stage for a decent outcome in Iraq. We’re skeptical, but we hope so.